Sasha Pierce

No drips, no drops, no dribbles, no blobs; there is only a deeply satisfying sense of precision and rigour to be found in the paintings of Toronto-based Sasha Pierce. This exhibition, “Shippo” at Zalucky Contemporary, was the artist’s first in her hometown in nine years and was highly anticipated, which is hardly surprising. Pierce’s paintings demonstrate the highest levels of technical skill and compositional acuity while also radiating a hypnotic transcendental aura.

Pierce’s previous exhibition in Toronto took place in 2013 and carried the title “Tessellations,” a reference to mathematical systems applied to the complex arrangement of geometric shapes into precisely interconnecting planes. Today, such systems are employed in 3D rendering but have a much longer history: the ancient Romans employed tessellation in the creation of elaborate floor mosaics and the approach has long been a feature of Islamic decorative arts and architecture. The works in “Shippo” similarly drew inspiration from ancient approaches to pattern and design—Wagara, a system of traditional Japanese patterns dating back to the 8th century; and, specifically, Shippo, a pattern consisting of overlapping circles that embody Buddhist concepts of interconnection, harmoniousness in human and cosmic relationships and the possibility of infinite reconfigurations.

“Shippo,” the exhibition, is the most visually cohesive body of work the artist has produced to date. Not to reveal too much about her process, but Pierce’s work involves a lot of preplanning, and she usually works on a single piece at a time rather than having several on the go at once. The initial mapping of basic patterns is done using Illustrator or Photoshop.

Sasha Pierce, installation view, “Shippo,” 2022, Zalucky Contemporary, Toronto. Photo: Laura Findlay. Copyright and courtesy the artist and Zalucky Contemporary. From left to right: Shippo VIII, 2022, watercolour, gouache and ink on handmade Kurotani 52 kozo paper, 25.75 × 20.75 inches; Shippo VII, 2022, watercolour, gouache and ink on handmade Kurotani 52 kozo paper, 25.75 × 20.75 inches; Shippo VI, 2022, watercolor, gouache and ink on handmade Kurotani 52 kozo paper, 25.75 × 20.75 inches.

Then, by hand, the artist uses a pencil and ruler to break up the circles into geometric forms, creating, in effect, a fractured checkerboard. For the works on paper, the artist employed white gel pens to define the lines and shapes, and colour was used to define the geometry of the paintings.

With few exceptions, the design of each work in the “Shippo” series is based around a “vanishing point.” Depending on the angle and distance from which a work is viewed, this central locus makes the forms appear either to collapse inwards toward this point or radiate outwards towards the viewer. This sense of optical to-and-fro is particularly effective in the black, white and grey watercolour, gouache and ink works. For example, Shippo XI—all works are serially titled Shippo with a Roman numeral and dated 2022— consists of a tight geometric array of elongated or truncated triangles overlaid by a radial layout of thin lines and double-ringed circles. The shapes are anchored around a white pinpoint—the aforementioned vanishing point—at the centre of the composition. This focal point seems to glow, illuminating portions of the composition. Looking deeply into these near-monochromatic pieces feels like peering into portals leading into other dimensions, as if they are distant and mysterious galaxies the artist has viewed through a powerful telescope and re-envisioned through an abstract lens.

Pierce is working within a history of abstraction that possesses an underlying suggestion of mysticism, spirituality and transformative power. In fact, Pierce pursues a parallel practice in yoga and meditation instruction; both this and artmaking are deeply personal endeavours so it is unsurprising that the former would inform the latter. As in the works of Agnes Martin, Hilma af Klint and Mark Rothko, the inner life and energy of Pierce’s paintings are activated by the discernible presence of the artist’s hand, the interactions of colour and an emphasis on the personal rather than the conceptual or intellectual. From a distance, Pierce’s works appear machine-made, refined to the point of cold perfection, but, up close, small flaws in the lines can be perceived, like catches that would be found in handwoven fabric. Close inspection of pieces like Shippo V or Shippo X, a dynamic medley of red, pink, grey and black forms, which was the show’s centrepiece, reveals the intense labour that the artist puts into the work. Although the thin lines look solid from a distance, they are comprised of minute dots of pigment.

Sasha Pierce, Shippo X, 2022, watercolour, gouache and ink on handmade Kurotani 52 kozo paper, 32.25 × 26 inches. Photo: Laura Findlay. Copyright and courtesy the artist and Zalucky Contemporary.

To make the lines, Pierce uses a plastic bag with a tiny hole cut in the tip like a baker would use when icing a cake. Others have discussed how this painstaking approach to paint application imbues Pierce’s work with textile-like qualities, which adds Bauhaus textile designs, as well as textiles and paintings by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, to the historical referents within Pierce’s practice. In the “Shippo” works specifically, this textural quality is enhanced by the ragged edges of the handmade kozo paper used for the watercolours and the texture of the linen discernible through the pigment of the paintings.

Despite the wavering lines, the eliding forms and the perceptual slipperiness of these works, never has the artist allowed the overall geometry and structure of the compositions to get away from her. As a viewer, it is impossible to parse the layers of these works or the complexity of their assemblage all at once or in a single attempt. Hard-edged abstraction is not to everyone’s taste, of course, but if you subscribe to the belief, as the American novelist Pearl S Buck did, that “Order is the shape upon which beauty depends,” then Pierce’s work is beautiful. Step back and scan the surface. Step forward and observe closely. There is splendour to be found in the exactitude of Pierce’s art and states of grace to be achieved in contemplating it. ❚

“Shippo” was exhibited at Zalucky Contemporary, Toronto, from September 10, 2022, to October 15, 2022.

Bill Clarke is a Toronto-based writer who has contributed to ArtReview, Modern Painters, ARTnews and several other publications.